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Reading by 9

How I Fell in Love With Poetry

Reading by 9. Editor's Note: This is one in a series of occasional essays on the joy of reading as part of The Times' Reading by 9 initiative.

February 07, 1999|EDWARD HIRSCH | Edward Hirsch is the author of five books of poetry, most recently "On Love." His essay will appear in a somewhat different form in the book "How to Read a Poem," to be published in April by Harcourt Brace

"Life is a spell so exquisite that everything conspires to break it," Emily Dickinson once said. One reason I like staying up to read long after everyone else has gone to sleep is that in the middle of the night, not much conspires to break that spell. I like the hushed hour when the secular world recedes--the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us, the world of our daily cares and concerns, our usual responsibilities--and the mind is loosened for poetic reverie. I term the poem a soul in action through words because I want to suggest that lyric poetry provides us with a particular means of spiritual transport. It carries us away.

Poetry speaks out of a solitude to a solitude; it begins and ends in silence. We are not in truth conversing by the side of the road. Rather, something has been written; something is being read. Language has become strange in this urgent and oddly self-conscious way of speaking across time. The poem has been (silently) en route--sometimes for centuries--and now it has signaled me precisely because I am willing to call upon and listen to it. Reading poetry is an act of reciprocity, and one of the great tasks of the lyric is to bring us into right relationship to each other. The relationship between writer and reader is by definition removed and mediated through a text, a body of words. It is a particular kind of exchange between two people not physically present to each other.

The lyric poem is a highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers--an immediate, intense and unsettling form of literary discourse. Reading poetry is a way of connecting--through the medium of language--more deeply with yourself even as you connect more deeply with another. The poem delivers on our spiritual lives precisely because it simultaneously gives us the gift of intimacy and interiority, privacy and participation.

"To understand poetry," the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca wrote, "we need four white walls and a silence where the poet's voice can weep and sing." Lorca evokes the four white walls as an emblem of pure space, an enclosure that separates us from the social realm and allows us the solitude to respond to the poet's grief and praise. The room is an image of primary shelter where one can experience a central simplicity. It must be a silent space because only in such silence can we listen to the words and daydream our way back into a private place within ourselves.

Wallace Stevens meant something similar when he noted, "Poetry is like prayer in that it is most effective in solitude and in the times of solitude as, for example, in the earliest morning." Poetry tries to get at something elemental by coming out of a silence and returning us--restoring us--to that silence. It is one of the soul's natural habitats. The poem of high spiritual attainment has the power, the almost magical potential, to release something that dwells deeply within us. It taps into something we otherwise experience haphazardly or at unlikely, decisive moments in our lives. The poem surprises us in words by formally delivering a sense of spiritual immensity. When I read a poem fully, I enter a world of threshold and engagement that still bears traces of the holy. I am taking a path that vibrates with a sacred air.

I was initiated into the poetry of trance, one form of the sublime, on a rainy Saturday afternoon in mid-October 1958 (baseball season was over for the year) when I wandered down to the basement of our house to pick through some of my grandfather's forgotten books. I was 8 years old. I vaguely remembered that my grandfather had copied poems on the inside covers of his favorite volumes, and I had decided to try to find one. (I didn't yet know that after his death, his books had been given to a local Jewish charity and that his poems were thereby lost forever.) I opened a musty anthology of poetry to a section called "Night" and read a poem that immediately arrested me:

\o7 The night is darkening round me,

The wild winds coldly blow,

But a tyrant spell has bound me

And I cannot, cannot go.

The giant trees are bending

Their bare boughs weighed with snow,

And the storm is fast descending

And yet I cannot go.

Clouds beyond clouds above me,

Wastes beyond wastes below;

But nothing drear can move me;

I will not, cannot go.\f7

There was no title or author's name attached to this song-like poem, and I somehow imagined that my grandfather must have written it. I read it right straight through, and its simple incremental rhythm seized me. I read it again slowly, pronouncing every word to myself, and suddenly I was in two places at once: I was standing next to a bookshelf in a small one-windowed room in my parents' basement, and I was lost in the middle of a field somewhere in southern Latvia with a storm wildly brewing around me. I felt as though the words of the poem, like the storm itself, had cast a "tyrant spell" upon me. I couldn't move.

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